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Vaginal cancer

Vaginal cancer; Cancer - vagina; Tumor - vaginal

Vaginal cancer is cancer of the vagina, a female reproductive organ.

Causes

Most vaginal cancers occur when another cancer, such as cervical or endometrial cancer, spreads. This is called secondary vaginal cancer.

Cancer that starts in the vagina is called primary vaginal cancer. This type of cancer is rare. Most primary vaginal cancers start in skinlike cells called squamous cells. This cancer is known as squamous cell cancer. The other types include:

  • Adenocarcinoma
  • Melanoma
  • Sarcoma

The cause of squamous cell carcinoma of the vagina is unknown. But a history of cervical cancer is common in women with squamous cell carcinoma of the vagina.

Most women with squamous cell cancer of the vagina are over 50.

Adenocarcinoma of the vagina usually affects younger women. The average age at which this cancer is diagnosed is 19. Women whose mothers took the medicine diethylstilbestrol (DES) to prevent miscarriages during the first 3 months of pregnancy are more likely to develop vaginal adenocarcinoma.

Sarcoma of the vagina is a rare cancer that mainly occurs in infancy and early childhood.

Symptoms

Symptoms of vaginal cancer can include any of the following:

  • Bleeding after having sex
  • Painless vaginal bleeding and discharge not due to normal period
  • Pain in the pelvis or vagina

Some women have no symptoms.

Exams and Tests

In women with no symptoms, the cancer may be found during a routine pelvic exam and Pap smear.

Other tests to diagnose vaginal cancer include:

Other tests that may be done to check if the cancer has spread include:

Other tests that may be done to know the stage of the vaginal cancer include:

Treatment

Treatment of vaginal cancer depends on the type of cancer and how far the disease has spread.

Surgery is sometimes used to remove the cancer. But most women are treated with radiation. If the tumor is cervical cancer that has spread to the vagina, radiation and chemotherapy are both given.

Sarcoma may be treated with a combination of chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation.

Support Groups

You can ease the stress of illness by joining a support group whose members share common experiences and problems.

Outlook (Prognosis)

Outlook for women with vaginal cancer depends on the stage of disease and the specific type of tumor.

Possible Complications

Vaginal cancer may spread to other areas of the body. Complications can occur from radiation, surgery, and chemotherapy.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call for an appointment with your health care provider if you notice bleeding after sex or have persistent vaginal bleeding or discharge.

Prevention

There are no definite ways to prevent this cancer. You can increase your chance of early detection by getting regular yearly pelvic examinations and Pap smears.

References

Bodurka DC, Frumovitz M. Malignant diseases of the vagina: intraepithelial neoplasia, carcinoma, sarcoma. In: Lobo RA, Gershenson DM, Lentz GM, Valea FA, eds. Comprehensive Gynecology. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2017:chap 31.

National Cancer Institute website. Vaginal cancer treatment (PDQ) – health professional version. www.cancer.gov/types/vaginal/hp/vaginal-treatment-pdq. Updated February 6, 2018. Accessed April 9, 2018.

  • Female reproductive anatomy

    Female reproductive anatomy - illustration

    External structures of the female reproductive anatomy include the labium minora and majora, the vagina and the clitoris. Internal structures include the uterus, ovaries, and cervix.

    Female reproductive anatomy

    illustration

  • Uterus

    Uterus - illustration

    The uterus is a hollow muscular organ located in the female pelvis between the bladder and rectum. The ovaries produce the eggs that travel through the fallopian tubes. Once the egg has left the ovary it can be fertilized and implant itself in the lining of the uterus. The main function of the uterus is to nourish the developing fetus prior to birth.

    Uterus

    illustration

  • Normal uterine anatomy (cut section)

    Normal uterine anatomy (cut section) - illustration

    The uterus is a muscular organ with thick walls, two upper openings to the fallopian tubes and an inferior opening to the vagina.

    Normal uterine anatomy (cut section)

    illustration

    • Female reproductive anatomy

      Female reproductive anatomy - illustration

      External structures of the female reproductive anatomy include the labium minora and majora, the vagina and the clitoris. Internal structures include the uterus, ovaries, and cervix.

      Female reproductive anatomy

      illustration

    • Uterus

      Uterus - illustration

      The uterus is a hollow muscular organ located in the female pelvis between the bladder and rectum. The ovaries produce the eggs that travel through the fallopian tubes. Once the egg has left the ovary it can be fertilized and implant itself in the lining of the uterus. The main function of the uterus is to nourish the developing fetus prior to birth.

      Uterus

      illustration

    • Normal uterine anatomy (cut section)

      Normal uterine anatomy (cut section) - illustration

      The uterus is a muscular organ with thick walls, two upper openings to the fallopian tubes and an inferior opening to the vagina.

      Normal uterine anatomy (cut section)

      illustration

     

    Review Date: 1/19/2018

    Reviewed By: Richard LoCicero, MD, private practice specializing in hematology and medical oncology, Longstreet Cancer Center, Gainesville, GA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

    The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., a business unit of Ebix, Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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